The Girl Singer Grows Up
Beginning in 1977, Rosemary Clooney recorded a long line of albums for Concord Records, albums that cast her as a serious artiste rather than merely the Girl Singer. Unlike the usual latter albums made by celebrities past their media primes, these albums weren’t designed to feed off the fumes of old triumphs and reputations. Instead, these albums were consciously designed to cement her historical legacy. While she might have had her biggest commercial smash with a novelty tune like “Come On-a My House”, her latter albums were meant to shore up her reputation as a serious interpreter of the Great American Songbook.
In a way, the explosion of rock music should be thanked for all this. Just as Clooney herself was growing beyond the wholesome sexiness—lighthearted but artistically lighthearted—of her youthful image, so too had rock pushed her style of jazzy and classical pop standards out of the commercial limelight. With the diminished, devoted audience that still bought such things, Clooney was now free to expand her range without fear of losing her audience.
To start things off, she was given full freedom to sing her pick of songs. No longer would she be handed “crap” (her term) to record by company officials and producers.
What served Clooney so well as an interpreter also serves her well in selecting her own material. She wields her newfound artistic freedom with admirable self-control. Though her producer and manager Allen Sviridoff recalls that having her choice of songs allowed Clooney “to reveal more of Rosemary’s personality ... and more of her life,” she never strays into the gushingly confessional. Sticking to the old master craftsman like Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, and Johnny Mercer, the songs are unflaggingly tasteful and discrete.
Which isn’t to say Clooney doesn’t infuse them with her own sensibilities. In her song choices and in her restrained interpretations of those songs, Clooney reflects a stately maturity hardly reflected in the early recordings that earned her her Girl Singer moniker.
Her version of “Brazil”, for instance, is slower and softer than the big band classic sung by Helen O’Connell for Jimmy Dorsey and his orchestra. The horns here are muted, definitely not intended for swinging to. Even when the beat picks up in the middle of Clooney’s version, the melody itself is plucked out on strings, not blasted out of orchestra horns. When, at the end of her take, O’Connell sings, “Return I will / To old Brazil”, the promise is literal; the stridency of the horns matches the stridency of O’Connell’s voice. After the heated, aborted romance described in the song, O’Connell’s is the sound of a young woman who still wants more. And get more she definitely will.
When Clooney sings the end of “Brazil”, there’s greater weight placed on the preceding lines, the lines about the circumstances that recalled memories of Brazil in her mind: “When twilight dims the sky above / Recalling thrills of our love”. She vows to return, but the return sounds as likely mental as physical, with the distance that separates her from her lover being as chronological as it is geographical. There’s little in Clooney’s reading to indicate a literal packing of bags or, for that matter, any desire to do so even if her old lover were still waiting there just as she left him. O’Connell and Clooney agree that love is fun. But Clooney is old enough to know that love isn’t all.
By the Concord years documented here, Clooney’s is the voice of someone who has seen life from both sides now. If her song choices aren’t as psychologically deep as Joni Mitchell’s, there’s also a bemused, fond detachment here that Mitchell rarely musters. As Clooney’s “I Wish I Were in Love Again” makes clear, love, in spite of, even during, the flying bottles and drag-out fights, is fun. So much fun that, despite having seen both sides and not quite understanding it yet, it’s worth at least a few more go’s. Just not without the youthful histrionics, whether in the songs of the songs or the way she Clooney sings them.
It’s her restraint that carried Clooney as a viable artist beyond the age when Sinatra himself (who, from his youth to 60 or so, ruled them all, of course) had become a nostalgia act. Relying little on the physical power of her voice, Clooney’s songs are contemplative, funny, and romantic and she sings them with the relaxed good humor of experience combined with humanity.
In a good sense, picking her own material let Clooney become a more personal artist. Picking songs that, sung differently or taken out of context, could be glittering displays of impersonal craft, she adds just the right touch of personal feeling to them. Armed with gifts as an understated interpreter, Clooney leans ever so slightly in the personal singer-songwriter direction (kind of like Norah Jones, who perhaps leans too much in the latter direction). This is soft pop and jazz for a tranquil, maybe slightly wistful, mildly pleasant midnight hour. If you’re not looking to have your soul shaken but instead want to prolong the gentle pleasures of that late night mood, then consider unwinding with these songs, songs that prove what a mature, tasteful woman the Girl Singer grew to be.